Greatest Hitch

Amid all the skewering, Christopher Hitchens tries a little tenderness in ‘Arguably’


Your challenge should you choose to accept it: describe journalist Christopher Hitchens without using the words ‘contrarian’ or ‘provocateur.’

Mission impossible? It sure felt like it. Take away the well-worn descriptors—toss out agitator, fire-brand, fire-eater (there’s a lot of “fire” talk around the famous atheist) and antagonist while you’re at it— and you’re left with having to consider Hitchens’s work apart from the hard shell of his cultural persona.

That’s as it should be.

And not only because the author’s 2010 diagnosis of esophageal cancer has drawn a line under his mortality, but in an era in which Lady Gaga is also considered to be a provocateur, the term has lost something of its cachet, if not its thrust (political rather than pelvic).

Fortunately, Arguably, Hitchens’s latest collection of essays, provides a wealth of material showcasing the vital talents (and human weaknesses) of the author of more than 20 books, including 2007’s atheist manifesto, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Arguably is a big book, a 750-pager guaranteed to topple the teetering ziggurat of unread material that’s perched precariously on your nightstand. Published by Twelve Books, which also put out Hitchens’s 2010 memoir Hitch-22, Arguably is a compilation of essays, political journalism and literary reviews written for such publications as Vanity Fair, Slate and The Atlantic over the past decade.

It’s been a rich 10 years for Hitchens, during which the former Trotskyite assumed an active post as the conscience of the left—a feat he managed while throwing his considerable intellectual weight behind unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, he’s become a kind of global ambassador for atheism.

Arguably is a powerful illustration of what makes Hitchens such a rare bird among journalists, who don’t often come to the public party trailing such pretty plumage (and no, untucked shirttails do not count as plumage). The literary reviews for which he is renowned, such as 2006’s “Gods of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment,” are workaday examples of the writer’s characteristic approach to his subject matter. Well-read doesn’t really cover it—effortlessly and from memory, he appears to draw from a university-library’s worth of learning. Here, the author’s inspiring ability to synthesize great chunks of political, social, and cultural history is on full display, as is his skill transforming a literary review into an essay (more than once I had to go back to figure out what book Hitchens was reviewing).

“Gods of Our Fathers,” which originally appeared in The Atlantic, is a tribute to Hitchens’s masterful skill as a debater. As to whether or not the Founding Fathers were men of religion, Hitchens asks the more pertinent question: “Why should we care?” especially given the fact that “they went to such great trouble to insulate faith from politics.” He provides evidence to suggest that even though they were living in a pre-Darwin, Deist culture, the Founders were a little more skeptical than Tea Party types might hope.

It’s the combination curiosity and follow-through—the desire to rescue the historical record from both the howling irrationalism that dogs partisan politics and the basic poor scholarship that blunts human intelligence —that makes his work educational. I’m tempted to say “for lack of a better word,” but is there a better word than educational?

On the subject of waterboarding, Hitchens offered himself up for a dousing in “Believe Me, It’s Torture.” Call it a stunt if you will, but it couldn’t have felt like it when the then 59-year-old author was hooded and lashed to a sloping board.

In another essay, a seemingly throwaway line recasts the abortion debate in practical terms. The question as to whether or not a fetus represents human life is absurd to Hitchens, who wonders “what other kind of life it could conceivably be.” And his essay, “Old Enough to Die,” on the barbaric practice of subjecting minors to the death penalty in the United Sates is one of his most powerful and affecting.

His assessments are often called withering—he slaps down meaningless public grief in “Suck it Up” and offers a very funny take on Prince Charles in “Charles, Prince of Piffle”—but he’s as likely to be tender and thoughtful as he is to be pitiless.

From John Brown to Abraham Lincoln to Philip Larkin, Hitchens shows real respect for the reputations of those who’ve proven themselves worthy. He doesn’t defend their honor—that would be maudlin—but strives to present a complete picture of their characters.

Hitchens isn’t really given his due when it comes to his marvelous restraint either. Often praised for “telling it like it is,” he’s as likely to make a point with humorous understatement as he is to go for the jugular.

In a review of Nicholson Baker’s pacifist novel Human Smoke, entitled “Just Give Peace a Chance?” Hitchens cites an infamous letter from Gandhi to the British people regarding the Nazis. In it, Gandhi enjoins British citizens to let the Nazis come over and play: “…if these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”

Hitchens’s response to the Mahatma’s remarkably kooky missive is to don his formal wear. “I must say that everything in me,” he writes, “declines to be addressed in that tone of voice…”

It may be because he has lived his illness so gracefully in the public eye that the emotional balance of his work, which can occasionally read as detachment, leaps out as a virtue rather than a failing in his essays. One wonders what the cost of being so graceful in public is for the private Hitchens. It’s a credit to his professional discipline, if not his durable character, that we never quite know the answer.

While there’s plenty of fine examples of Hitchens at full power on the subjects of Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan, his writings on child soldiers in Uganda (“Childhood’s End: An African Nightmare”) and the horrific results of the continuing effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam (“The Vietnam Syndrome”) display his acute sensitivity and his moral courage—he looks at people we avoid and tells us things about both them and ourselves that we’d don’t want to hear.

Few writers, upon being taken to see the effects of dioxin on the deformed children of Vietnam, would have the courage to concede that, “One should not run out of vocabulary to the point where one calls a child a monster, but the temptation is there.”

Fewer writers still would take on such unremittingly dark subject matter, where there is no “healing” and the only conclusion to be drawn is that “This was not a dreadful accident, or a tragedy. It was inflicted, on purpose, by sophisticated human beings.”

While Hitchens rarely misses his target, there are a few examples in Arguably where his vulnerabilities show. Though he considers it his most “instantly misinterpreted” essay, his “Why Women Aren’t Funny” for Vanity Fair fails on a lot of levels. It reads like a conversation you might have with a wine-flushed professor, one who fancies himself a ladies’ man, but who in fact has only been patiently tolerated by a succession of forgiving and/or desperate women.

It’s hard to discern what point Hitchens is trying to prove; he concedes lesbians and “hefty” broads like Roseanne can be humorous and we’re left to conclude that they’re not really reflective of “women” as he sees them. And the P.G. Wodehouse-inspired tone of the essay isn’t funny, which doesn’t serve his ‘men = hilarious’ theory all that well.

But there’s a lot more great and good work in the collection than there are misfires. After reading the whole shot over the course of a weekend, it’s hard not to conclude there is something of an epic quality to Hitchens’s career. He’s fought the good fight against ignorance, cruelty and stupidity and for much longer than other similarly disposed authors, all the while demonstrating a fierce personal and professional blend of intellectual and physical courage. Sometimes he’s done it wearing in flak jacket, other times in tails. Gritty and gracious, rigorously contemporary and unexpectedly courtly, Christopher Hitchens has made it his habit to stare into the darkness and into the light and, if he occasionally flinches as surely he must, then rest assured, you and I will never be privy to it, such is the committed nature of his bravery.


Greatest Hitch

  1. “he’s become a kind of global ambassador for atheism.”

    And pretty much the only orator of the current new atheist movement who remotely seems to know what he’s talking about.

    Which is why, oddly enough, he is admired by many evangelical and mainstream Christian apologists (and no, Tony Blair isn’t actually one). Unlike the juvenile rantings and strawman attacks of Dennett, Dawkins and Harris, Hitchens actually knows theology and presents serious arguments when in debate. This is refreshing for many apologists who are used to arguing with self-satisfied demagogues, imbued with callow oppositional defiance and a sunday school level understanding of theology. To be seriously debated earns their admiration.

    You’ll get no asinine “aliens would disprove Christianity” statements, or “explain the presence of evil” arguments from Hitchens.

    • I also enjoy his sense of humour.
      “The governor of Texas, who, when asked if the Bible should also be taught in Spanish, replied that ‘if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.”
      ― Christopher Hitchens

      • LOL

        Oh God was that Bush? I don’t suppose it was but it was worthy of him. There’s a kind of innocence to stupidity of that order.

    • Probably because he’s Jewish and an anti-theist, not an atheist.
      Why an atheist would bother discussing theology, I don’t know. But there isn’t any ‘new atheism’…same old atheism it always was, you’re just hearing more about it now. 

      • -Perhaps more of an anti-theos, shaking his fist at God rather than denying his existence.
        He’s really not as anti-theist as many would think however; his only brother, author Peter Hitchens, and his friend and Doctor Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research
        Project, are both evangelical Christians; as well as are many of his other acquaintances.
        He doesn’t dislike the religious as people, he dislikes religion. And he doesn’t necessarily find them ignorant and superstitious, he just thinks they’re wrong.

        -The term “New Atheism”, that usually refers to the fervent ‘evangelical’ tendencies in modern atheism (Dawkins=Elmer Gantry), rather than the tempered intellectualism of the men like Isaac Asimov.

        -“Why an atheist would bother discussing theology” Not discussing, but if your going to publicly disavow something, it helps to know what your actually opposing. You might wow the choir, but your audience will find you at best a demagogue, at worst a fool.

        • Are you angry at Zeus?  Are you angry at the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny?

          Well. atheists aren’t ‘angry at God’ either…because none of them exist.

          I know believers like to think that deep down inside atheists believe….but I’m afraid they don’t, and it’s time you got over it.

          I’m amazed you would think it matters what other members of his family believe….he isn’t them….he is anti-theist.

          “Antitheism has been adopted as a label by those who take the view that theism is dangerous or destructive. One example of this view is demonstrated in Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001), in which Christopher Hitchens writes: “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”[1]

          As to the New Atheism…it doesn’t exist.

          “In a 2010 column entitled Why I Don’t Believe in the New Atheism, Tom Flynn contends that what has been called “New Atheism” is neither a movement nor new, and that what was new was the publication of atheist material by big-name publishers, read by millions, and appearing on best-seller lists.[16]”

          Atheists have always existed, but in a spirit of live and let live they didn’t say much to religious people…they just edged away from them at dinner parties.

          However with the advent of Bush and 911, religious folk weren’t content to give the same courtesy to others…..suddenly they were in everybody’s face, insisting on their beliefs over everyone elses. Atheists finally got tired of listening to it, or being respectful to believers, and spoke up….calling it the ignorant superstition it always was.

          Atheists are usually far more well versed on the Bible and religious matters than so-called Christians….that’s why they’re atheists.  They know exactly what they’re talking about…..the ‘believers’ never do.

          Discussing ‘theology’ with anyone is akin to discussing astrology….I’m glad Dawkins et al can keep a straight face because I certainly couldn’t.

          • You are far off when you say believers don’t know what they are talking about. Read Dinesh D’Souza’s “What’s so Great about Christianity” and get an education.

          • I’ve been an atheist for 45 years….and in that time i’ve talked to, and read,  many a believer.

            No,they don’t know what they’re talking about…they have no objectivity

            D’Souza is merely another in a long line of tedious defenders of a bronze-age goat-herders fantasy.

            Not to mention just plain crazy.

      • Hitchens is only Jewish in that his maternal grandparents were, and he only found out about it late in life. Hardly a life-informing influence.
        Just because you’re an atheist does not mean you can’t be informed regarding the myths and prejudices of the society you live in.

        • Yes, he’s Jewish by ancestry, and I’m sure he looked into it….but being an atheist means you are informed of the myths and prejudices of the society you live in….you just don’t buy into them.

  2. Dear OriginalEmily 1;
    Please take your stuck in reverse head and bang it against the wailing wall,maybe to unstick it.Then you will see if it is good for something;(the wall that is).   Jon

    • Dear john

      I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I doubt you do either.

      English is obviously not your first language.

      • Je suis vraiment desole,Madame perfectionniste……sure….,
        It appears that Mr.Hitchens is being fragmented here somewhat,an atheist,then not an atheist but an anti-theist ,and next a ‘ya but’,he’s a Jew????what the ….?
        Well,he is an atheist,a passionate anti-theist and a human being,period.
        Now after being reinstated as an atheist,why you ask, does he bothers discussing theology?Well,maybe,when you discover something,and you deem it potentially dangerious,it might be a good idea to inform your community.It seems that you may have been informed 45 years ago unless that is you were born that way.  j

        • Again I have no idea what you’re talking about…he is all of those things. What’s wrong with that?

          I was replying to another poster when I asked why an atheist would bother discussing theology…the other poster was referring to Dawkins.

          You can see for yourself…upthread.

          Everyone is born an atheist…they are taught religion.

          • I’m not trying to poke the fire here,but you seem to have also said that ‘”akin to discussing astrology””same thing??
            True, we are thought religion and we became these thoughts..and you know the bloody rest of it.I’m not sure you can be born an atheist however,to not believe in something that does not exist.hmm.Maybe we are only able to seek what is true from moment to moment, which would most likely make a very nice existence. j 

          • Theology is the same as astrology, yes. Or alchemy or phrenology, or homeopathy…It’s pseudoscience, woo-woo, twaddle etc

            All babies everywhere are born as atheists…depending what country they’re born in they are then taught to be christians or muslims or hindus or jainists or zoroastrians etc

  3. Emily,
    Twaddle?  You might want to run that by the scientists, mathematicians, doctors, and university students who attend my church and the neighbouring churches and synagogues. I can guarantee that you would be impressed by their education, thoughtfulness, and insight.  

    • Emy wants a cracker.j

      • Haha she always does!

  4. Chris, if you or your wife are reading these comments, I would like to remind you the you are the one that is evil for supporting Greece in its attempt to wipe ethnic Macedonians off the face of the map, both in Greece itself and the Republic of Macedonia … all under the watchful eye of the EU/US/Nato trifecta. Before you pass, by way of reparations to ethnic Macedonians for your past misdeeds, please travel to the town of Florina (Lerin) in the Greek province of Macedonia, where 50% of the population is of ethnic Macedonian origin, to protest the call of Greek priest,Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki (Solun), to (burn down a Macedonian language radio station) … and I quote: 
    “We have some of those who were left here since the Civil War period, as we call it, that difficult period, who did not leave to the other side and stayed here with us… [They] are now revolting, and are instigated from abroad by the Skopian [sic] propaganda … That is why we address to the Ministry of Interior and deputy ministers relevant to the media to tell us: is it true, such a radio station will become in Meliti . . . yes or no? If it is yes, then I, and the youth, and anyone else who wants to . . . [with] at least 40 or 50 buses must go there, and together with our brothers in Florina and Meliti, we will destroy everything into broken glass and nails . . . It is not possible to do the job differently.”

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